Bittersweet Guilt

I did a couple of stupid things last night, and spent the better part of today ruminating on them, feeling wretched.

This morning, on the ferry ride home, I ran into an old friend. Her enthusiasm for her new camera, her ready smile, her delight in the beauty of the landscape, and her good old-fashioned kindness penetrated my cloak of shame and sorrow and made me smile, too.

I arrived home, collected my dog, and ventured out into the sun. I had a quick indoor picnic of leftovers (the day was too fine, and I was too hungry, to fuss with making an actual picnic. Sometimes – often, actually – the perfect is the enemy of the good).

haste meal
haste meal: boiled egg, matzoh with goat cheese and tzatziki, grilled asparagus, carrot salad, arugula

I met many people who were delighted by my dog. I wrote things while sitting in the sun, drinking coffee. I ate two big scoops of gelato (pistachio, coconut) and drank a beer.

I reflected on my transgressions, resolved to do better in the future. Guilt can be instructive. All those facebook posts would have you believe that guilt has no place in a healthy person’s heart, that worry is a waste, that anxiety, in all its forms, is a bad thing.

But if we felt no guilt for the wrong we did, what incentive would we have to do right? Sure, there is intrinsic gratification in performing acts of kindness, in bringing others pleasure and happiness, in helping people. But sometimes it is equally rewarding to disregard the feelings and needs of others. In matters of public interest, there are laws to keep us in check. But in interpersonal matters, feelings of guilt and shame act as a check on bad behavior and can serve as an indicator that we’ve been in error.

I think that morality is, to a significant extent, inborn, that feelings of guilt enable us to learn from mistakes and avoid future transgressions: For social animals like us, it’s adaptive to feel shame. We don’t need the rubric of religion to teach us what is right and wrong – we need only listen to the accusatory murmur from within. (What is considered “wrong,” is, of course, partially socially constructed, but there are a lot of universals.)

this is a "small"
this is a “small.” and my hand is really dry.

Of course, guilt can be paralyzing, and overly zealous self-excoriation can be a vice. So I had to back up off of it and eat some ice cream, sit in the sun and pet my dog, give my fallible self a break.

Incidentally, I love a cake cone: No sweet, crunchy waffle cones for me. The blank-slate neutrality of a cake cone’s flavor (or lack thereof), its airy crispness and the way it melts on your tongue, is the perfect foil for ice cream’s sweet, smooth richness.

And, in my experience, ice cream is a panacea for bad feelings.

styrofoamy goodness
styrofoamy goodness

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